What It Really Means to Pay What You Can

Recently I opened a couple of shows for my friend Mark Erelli, a great singer, guitarist, and songwriter who’s also based in Boston. During his shows, he began the musician’s traditional “I have CDs for sale” spiel, but his was a bit different. He explained to the audience that he sells his music on a “pay what you can” basis, that he wants people to take some music home in whatever way works for them. I was struck and inspired by that sentiment, and when our summer tour was about to begin, I suggested to my bandmates that we start doing the same.

For the last month of touring, we’ve been telling our audiences that we normally charge $15 for CDs, but we have begun selling them on a “pay what you can” basis. We ask people to think about what music is worth to them, and what they can afford, and we usually throw in some kind of gas-money or Spotify-related quip about how hard it is to make money in this business, just for good measure. We say that we want people to have our CD if they want to buy it, and if money is tight, that’s okay.

People have responded well so far, but I feel obligated to mention that straight-up asking for money onstage is easier for some people than others. Society rewards that kind of thing when it comes from three young, conventionally attractive women (two of whom are white). This was the main criticism rightfully lobbed at Amanda Palmer when her TED Talk and book The Art of Asking was making the rounds several years ago. Remember that? It was about crowdfunding, and about a half-baked philosophy of letting your audience help you rather than asking them. NPR’s review of Palmer’s book notes that these are the questions she did not ask: “Who is allowed to ask for help? Who is heard when they ask for help? Whom do people want to help?” We, for reasons that are largely outside our control, happen to fall into the category of “people who people want to help.” That doesn’t mean I feel bad accepting people’s Kickstarter pledges or their extra $5-10 for a CD, but I feel bad that not every artist has the freedom to ask for those things and be heard.

In my last couple of columns, I’ve been ruminating a bit on how difficult it has become for musicians to make a living. I don’t want to paint us musicians as martyrs, though. We chose to do this job because we like doing it. And I know I am far from the first or only person to be sounding alarm bells about the financial state of the music industry. Even so, I’m trying to shed a bit more light on issues of financial viability for independent artists, in the hope that listeners and supporters might understand the landscape a bit better, and fellow musicians might find solidarity. I believe that music is good for society. I also believe very strongly that music will suffer if music careers become accessible only to people who either are independently wealthy or happen to get blessed by the major-label gods.

This state of affairs wasn’t caused by music consumers deciding en masse that they didn’t want to pay for music anymore. Rather, the avenues (Spotify, etc.) appeared to consume music without paying for it, and people took that route because … of course they did. I did it too! I am, at this moment, listening to an album on Spotify that I did not pay for. It’s easy and we all like free things. The fault lies with the people who decided they could make a buck by devaluing musicians’ labor, and we can’t undo that now. But I still believe in paying for music, and I pay for music in various ways (including purchasing too many bands’ hats that I don’t wear, but that’s neither here nor there).

The “pay what you can” system is still a new experiment for us. But from a purely economic standpoint, so far, it has helped my band sell more CDs and make more money than we made before. I think if our audience skewed younger, we might be making less per CD. But even if we were making less per CD, I think I would still believe in this way of doing things because it allows us to say something about our values. We want to remind people that creators deserve to be compensated for their labor. We also believe that art, and all elements of a good life, should be accessible to everyone, and that those who are well off have an important opportunity to pay it forward and help ensure that accessibility. “Pay what you can” is, in my view, a good system for the world in general, not just for music.

Interesting column and food for thought! I'm a fan, not a musician, and I still buy music.  I attended a concert with my son and offered to buy him a CD. He looked at me and said "What am I going to do with that?".  He likes music, pays his monthly Spotify fee and it is a continuous all you can eat guilt-free buffet.  I've seen artists do everything from charging $25 (c'mon I paid to see you don't gouge me), to the standard $15 pricing, to "pay what you can",  to  "take a CD and spread the word" (Thank you Girls, Guns and Glory for that generous gesture but I declined having already purchased all your discs).

Off topic regarding music but related to the art of asking question:

I was annoyed and did not contribute when a local established restaurant that was doing very well decided to go "up scale" and had a Kickstarter to fund their remodel.   So yes anyone can ask and anyone can say no. 

Finally the digital system many places use that ask for a tip fits into the asking equation. I tip for a service provided (bartenders, waiters, barbers, etc.) but don't expect a tip for sticking a baguette in a bag! 20%, 15%, 10%,  Custom Tip?  Nope.

Rant over.

This is a topic I’ve been writing about from time to time since I first began posting on this site back in 2009. Most know my backstory, but the condensed version is my career in music distribution sales and marketing began in 1972 and lasted over thirty-five years. A post-Napster world and the weekly Best Buy and Walmart ads that offered new CDs far below wholesale value combined to create the almost everlasting perception on the minds of consumers that the value of recorded music is zero. Not only musicians, writers, producers and creatives lost their income, but so did record store employees, wholesalers, labels, marketing companies and the economic impact had many tentacles. Being one of the last men standing at my company for almost a year, I was like George Clooney in that film where he flies from city to city to fire folks. So my first point is that the impact in transitioning to a digital market effected more people than you may realize. 

I have stayed as close to music as I can, which includes writing for ND, doing pro bono consulting and volunteering at a local and established concert series where I do everything from selling tickets, finding people their seats and working the merch table.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

-With rare exception, the ‘pay what you can model’ always yields more money for the performer. 

-If you feel like you must place a value on your music, the $15 CD is simply too high for most people. Try multiples if you have several titles: 3 for $20 is a motivating number.

-Vinyl gets loud applause when you say you have some for sale from the stage, but you’re only going to sell a couple, and at that only to the rare twenty-something who dots an aging audience.

-If as a musician you aren’t standing next to me engaging your audience and selling along with me, you’re doomed. Obviously I not talking Dylan here, but the indie musician playing in front of 10-300 people. Most folks know they can hear your music for free, but they’ll buy something just for the chance to talk to you for a bit, and maybe snap a pic. For every musician I’ve met who says ‘I’m not a business person, I’m just a musician’, let’s talk about your next career working for minimum wage at Target.

-Don’t blame streaming, because it can help you beyond your wildest beliefs. There’s a small but popular act in this Americana genre that I know who has put most of their efforts on going after playlist curators. Some of their songs have been streamed hundreds of thousands of times. Their compensation from it isn’t huge, but it has afforded them the ability to book 200 nights a year on the road which earns them a sustainable and comfortable lifestyle in a small town.

I could continue, but I’m late getting to my own column’s deadline. So thanks for posting your experience and maybe I’ll see you out on the road one day.






I agree with everything you say Ed but I am unsure about your point about Wal-Mart and Best Buy contributing to the perception that “the value of recorded music is zero”. 

The main reasons employees steal from their employer is they feel they have been wronged, underpaid, unappreciated or abused by their employer.  

I actually think perception the labels were price gouging consumers for years contributed to them embracing any other idea than paying $16.99 for a CD.      

In the mid to late 90’s, AOL could send two to three CD’s a month to your house on the off chance you would stick it in your computer.   I think that caused people to think these things are so cheap, why am I paying so much for a CD? 

You would know the economics of the music business much better than me and Wal-Mart only exacerbated the race to the bottom that has happened with many products and industries but I think the labels wanting to get the last penny from every consumer contributed to consumers not caring about sticking it to them.   No one felt any loyalty to Sony and the artists got caught in that crossfire.    

The technology was going to cause it to happen anyway but since consumers felt the labels were bearing the brunt of it no one was weeping about it.  

I have a Spotify subscription.   Convenience and variety are two of the main reasons.   The only time I buy a CD is at a show to support the artist.   As you say, it makes all the difference for the artist to be standing there.   

I am 52.  I always buy vinyl at concerts and I volunteer at the local record store.  Guess what?  85% of the people coming in are over 40.  They have the expendable cash and want records.  Twenty somethings don't have any money.  My daughter loves records but has only a few.  If you want my money at a concert have vinyl there.

Expendable cash and (well) over 40 is the market for the endless reissues of deluxe expanded editions. What happens when the (we) dinosaurs die off?

My daughter and her friends will hopefully have expendable cash by then, lol.


I do have to say that we do not only sell reissues to over 40 people, though we do sell a lot of them.  Many people are buying new stuff too.

Ed...Completely agree with the premise that if the artist is standing there, it matters.  Isa referenced Mark Erelli, who is a wonderful songwriter and a great guy too...he came through Indy with Aoife O'Donovan right after his "For A Song" record came out...I had already done the pre order via Bandcamp so I was going to get the CD in the mail, but hadn't received it yet...after Mark played, my buddy and I went to talk to him, and he was gracious and very receptive...he had just gotten the actual CD's right before he headed out on the road, so he had copies of the new record...I told him I'd already pre ordered but said I'd buy another one at the show and give it to a friend, and he suggested that he sign the one I bought at the show, and keep that one..give the one away that I'd be receiving in the near future...he was a musician who wanted to keep doing what he was doing, so he was right there to suggest anything that helped the commerce and with a smile...he's got a Master's degree in one of the Science fields and I'd guess he could do something else for a living that might pay more, but music is what he loves and it is he's doing all the work...

Not sure I understand the premise in paragraph three that some people ("conventionally attractive women") are able to ask and others not. I've seen some pretty shaggy bands seeking crowd funding and in their case it was their music justifying the request, not their appearance, and it was the music inspiring the response. Anything I've ever contributed in that way, including to the original ND site was because I liked the music and/or story involved, not because of a visual. Depending on the act I buy CD's at shows, not just as souvenirs which is what they really are, but to play them too. And depending on the act if they are charging $10-$15 I may hand them a $20 and tell them to keep the change. I don't understand why some musicians won't get to the merch table after cooling down for a few minutes from the show, the lines do seem longer for those that do. Having talked to a few musicians the merch table can be an added revenue stream that matters, overcoming shyness or an aversion to the business side seems like a good idea for those with those issues. 

What don't you get about "Conventionally attractive women"?

Then why are they seeking crowd funding? cool

Because they can?

Anyone can. Looks but music no one wants to hear won’t get them far. Music but no looks has helped many a band.

If you're talking Americana I agree.  But pop music is a different can of worms where looks do trump tunes.

Yep, am referring to roots music, and am not referring to any one group, just making a generic example.

And I was making a genetic example.  

Not necessarily.

I saw him once (Al) ticket, my brother in law asked me to go with him while we were visiting...believe it or not, it was quite entertaining, funnier than I expected, and Al's band was ridiculously good...virtuoso players...must've been a good paying gig...

Be at the table and also be friendly!  I've gone up to the table to talk to an artist and they've acted like they could not care less about me.  That's not going to get me to buy anything.

Disappointing when that happens, hopefully it’s a situational thing and not a habit. Everyone has bad days and who knows what went on earlier that day or week.

" conventionally attractive women (two of whom are white). "

Why? What purpose was there to inject race where it wasn't needed?

Perhaps it was her way to let you know the third non-white woman was also "conventially attractive"?  

Still no need for it...guess I just don't see people in terms of race, guess I'm alone in that here though. Have a great day.

Either that or it may be that since you felt the need to mention it when no one else commenting here did then maybe you did see it in terms of race since the race she mentioned was the white one......?  

Or maybe not...either way Dan, you also have a great day!




I thought she added that to make the point that for some people race and attractiveness will determine what, or if, they contribute.

Well that's what I thought too, though I didn't have a visceral reaction to it in print until it was pointed out...And that would indicate that some people do see it in terms of race and or attractiveness...which, like it or not, we all know to be true if we are being honest...